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“Love Song to My Death”: In conversation with artist Taraka Larson about processing the loss of collaborative identity and her solo journey through the Now.

Taraka Larson, Prince Rama Rage in Peace Lead Photo by Will Rahilly

By LEIGHANA WAIGHT, September 2019 

The artist Taraka Larson recently completed an extended residency at The Wassaic Project in New York, where she sought to focus on her new solo body of work, a journey which lead to her creation of Rage in Peace- a final farewell recording and performance death ritual commemorating Prince Rama, the art collaboration/psych band she and sister Nimai Larson started in 2008.   

Rage in Peace, in part an EP comprised of half written songs intended for a new album, involves a “sonic coffin,” a sculptural object in the form of a vinyl record, pressed from the cremated remains of Prince Rama- funerary ash from a bonfire Taraka built to burn all physical remains of Prince Rama (old records, stage outfits, show flyers, etc.). The project marks Prince Rama’s life cycle coming to an end and Larson’s new understanding of her individual creative processes. Taraka and I met for tea on St. Marks Street in NYC to discuss her solo journey through the NOW and the intimate and personal experience of creating a funeral for Prince Rama.

LW: So, let’s talk about Rage in Peace… very beautiful and tough send- off [for Prince Rama] for sure.  

TLYeah, totally, but it’s what the spirit wanted. The EP is like my final offering for the spirit of Prince Rama to help set it free. I had these songs that I was writing for a new album but when Nimai left, I abandoned them and started working on a solo record. At first, I tried fitting them into the solo stuff, but quickly realized that they belonged to a different journey. I still really liked these songs, so I wondered, what can I do with them?  I was meditating on it for a while and decided “I am going to ask Prince Rama what is wants.” It’s response- “Well release the music, duh! You make peace with Prince Rama by releasing the music and giving it a proper farewell." When these things come to me, I feel like it’s not really my idea-- in fact, I feel like I am a slave to these ideas sometimes- like, really? I have to do all this? And yet I understood this was what was necessary to set it free. The labor of putting together a farewell EP was so intense and emotionally consuming. After I finished recording the music, I gathered all our old albums, show outfits, flyers, Pitchfork reviews, energy drinks, etc and on the day Jesus Christ was crucified, I made a bonfire in the center of an old stone cairn and burned them all. I took the ashes and pressed them into vinyl 7 inches so that each record could be like a sonic coffin to house the cremated remains of Prince Rama’s flesh. I then hand painted each one of the covers, which was especially hard because I’ve never done painting before.

LW: How many paintings are there, or albums? 

TL: 100 

LW: Are they for sale?

TL: Yeah. It’s been such a different process than making any of our other records. Our last album Xtreme Now, for instance, was about exploring perfection through pop music, of making the ideal pop record. And of course, in the end, it fails, because no human can ever reach that. But that didn’t stop us from still trying to make everything perfect about it, and in our minds, we came damn near close-- mixed perfect! Album art- perfect! Painstakingly perfect! And yet I felt this vast emptiness at the end of finishing it because I realized that perfection is hollow, pop is hollow. I missed some of the messiness and sloppiness and tenderness of just being human. So for the last Prince Rama release, I wanted to end it with being totally vulnerable, destroyed, and letting it all hang out.  And the fact that I am not a painter, and then having this daunting task to make these hundred abstract paintings-- it was HARD. Like, I used to be one of those people that would look at a painting and say— “Oh, Clyfford Still, I can paint that.” But then when I actually tried doing it-- yikes! Abstract painting is so much more subtle and complex than I gave it credit for; it’s not about skill, it’s not about concept- it’s about feeling. It’s about that feminine energy of being in touch with your subconscious and letting stuff just come out without being too judgmental about it-- It’s about letting go of control. And all those things I had really difficult times with. So, in a way, I feel like going through the process of painting all the covers exorcised a lot out of me. My artistic process before that had always entailed coming up with the idea first, then making everything else in service to the idea. It’s almost like needing a blueprint of everything before you even get started. 

LW: I saw you were at the Wassaic Project- did you do this work up there?

TL: Yeah, I was doing an extended residency at the Wassaic Project for about a year where I just worked on the Rage In Peace EP and solo album. For the first time in my life I actually felt like a practicing artist, which is a kind of weird thing to say. I didn’t realize how distracted I was here [in the city]. To be in a space where you could make music at any time day or night-- like guttural scream over guitar feedback at 3 am in the morning-- that was revolutionary! It took about a month or two just to come out of my cage and start to understand it. It was refreshing and a bit intimidating at first to get into that internal space. I like to use the terms masculine and feminine to describe the energy a little bit; I feel like Prince Rama had a very masculine energy, very much about putting things out into the world, very extroverted-- meeting with people, collaborating with people, traveling, making work based on commentary on external events, etc. This next phase so far has been way more feminine. It’s more about going internal, being receptive, and exploring that mysterious internal landscape and making work from that. It’s been an uncharted terrain for me. It all feels very new, kind of scary, very dangerous.

LW: Like more vulnerable. As far as art collaborations, you hear about bands breaking up all the time; and I was trying to think of examples to compare a breakup of the kind of collaboration you had with Nimai, where it’s not only music but expressing through many different mediums- I feel like a lot of the concept of Prince Rama is very visual and performance art oriented, super involved. 

TL: Absolutely- and when you ask about the difference between working in collaboration and working solo--when you’re doing a collaboration and working with a group of people who are all on the same page, there is nothing in the world like it. You kind of “lose your ego,” or your sense of individuality. You just become a part of a hive mind, and you begin to understand what it is like to think as a collective. You realize at the end of the day this is kind of what humanity is about; coming together and working collectively and being pushed outside your individual comfort zones to connect with your fellow humans. So that part is great. The downside for me was that it became too safe. It’s hard to make very personal work when you are with other people. You are always trying to find that common ground, that place of resonance, which isn’t fully inside you or inside them. I found that this internal work was the missing piece. With a collaboration, you kind of slice the surface of internal work, but I felt like I could never fully express myself or fully dive in. 

LW: I can imagine the process of going through and listening to your past work kind of helped you understand where you are now with your solo work.  Would you see it as a kind of continuation? Or do you see it as a separation?

TL: I’d like to look at it as a form of integration. I think when we first broke up, I wanted a separation and for this new solo thing to be something totally different. It’s kind of like when you break up with someone you are like, “Ah! I’m never dating someone like that again!” And you rebound with someone totally different, and it’s wild, fresh and crazy. But then some time goes by and you realize- I’m doing the same old shit I’ve always done, just with a different person. So, yeah, internally I’m interested in starting new pages, but to do that fully I’ve had to work really hard to address a lot of old patterns, so they don’t become these repeat offenders. 

LW: Which is empowering for sure.

TL: Yeah! I realized also through listening to all this older stuff, it’s not so different-- the aesthetic is different, but the core will always be the same. The core is always my spirit. Despite all the different masks and costumes we wore, that spirit is something I could follow like a thread through a maze.  So that has been interesting to observe. In the past, every album felt like a separate relationship; but now in hindsight I can see how each one was an evolution of the one before, I just had to just convince myself it was a rejection of the former at the time. And then after 8 albums, I realized I’d been doing nothing but rejecting myself year after year-- rejecting the old to make the new. I am not interested in making something that is a rejection of something else anymore. I seek integration. It’s like when a snake sheds its skin-- The old skin created a protective shell that fortified and shielded the new skin so that it could grow strong underneath. So, in that way, the shell will always be a part of the new skin. I’m interested in the past being something that fortifies your present, where you can look back on it and whenever you need a mirror to shine a light in the darkness, you can ask it, “Oh, where am I again? Oh yeah, there I am. Thanks, you’ve got my back”. Looking back through these songs was a spooky process at times, because my style of songwriting is based on automatic writing and channeling, so most of it is all happening unconsciously. Most of the time I have no idea what I am writing while I’m writing it, but when I listened back to the songs, it all made sense. It was almost as if my past self was singing to my present self to help me out during this time. It was chilling how relevant all the lyrics were. So, I don’t know, I feel grateful for that. It reaffirms to me that sometimes when you are creating you don’t know what the fuck you are doing or why you are doing it, but to remember to just always be honest and trust yourself, trust the process. You don’t have to have it all figured it out in the middle of the book. Later, maybe you’ll look back and it will make sense. 

LW: So, like with Rage in Peace, the ending is something you’ve embraced, you’re at peace. It’s like the Western or widely held notion that death indicates a failure, or something went wrong… but really, it’s all a part of it, it brings you to a next phase.

TL: Yeah, you know it’s funny, people always see death as a failure of life, or a breakup as a failure of love, but death is built into life! If you don’t die, you failed at living. Death is part of it. At first, I was going through the whole what-if-I’m-a-failure-phase, but then I was like, you know what? If failure is built into success and death is built into life, how do you die with gusto?! How do you succeed at failing? How do you give up with grace? I think failure is a word that grows out of attachment, like an attachment to an idea. As soon as you let go of your attachment to the idea, then it just is what it is-- neither success or failure. If you are given an opportunity to die, and you don’t take it, that’s a failure.  

LW: It’s a part of being an artist, being a human. 

TL: Right- like did David Bowie fail as an artist because he ended Ziggy Stardust? No! 

LW: Right, and he really gave that concept a proper death and farewell as well.

TL: It’s really about understanding as an artist when something has reached its expiration date. I kind of had this moment towards the end of Prince Rama at a Halloween show. The residency director of where we were playing at the time and his partner were dressed as Prince Rama. And in that moment, it was surreal because I felt like they were more Prince Rama than I was. I think that was maybe what Paul Laffoley was talking about with the kitsch barrier- how Elvis died because he couldn’t overcome the kitsch barrier-- his double, his image-- and he became consumed by it. He couldn’t create a separation of his own identity from that image of who society thought he was, so instead of it becoming like a snakeskin, it became an ontological cage. With any sort of public image, you create a double- even with an Instagram page, you create a double. 

LW: Like becoming a brand you created, or having to fit an idea you created as it’s now a set understanding

TL: Right, and if that shell becomes more real than who you are underneath, it becomes a problem. I had an existential moment of thinking how I don’t know who I am underneath all this makeup and costume. I had reached the edge of that kitsch barrier and I didn’t know what was on the other side. When you wear a mask, it gives you a kind of freedom to say and do things you weren’t normally able to do. But at a certain point, you gotta just shed that mask and say what you want to say. It’s like the snakeskin- you shed that; it served its purpose. And I think for David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust was the vehicle for him to realize who he was, and he didn’t need to wear that mask anymore. He could move on to his next skin. That’s what this whole process feels like to me- it isn’t like a failure or emotional charge- it’s like ok, this life cycle is over. It has brought me to this point. It’s served its purpose. I’m grateful. Now let’s shed it and move on to the next adventure. WM

Leighana Waight

 

Leighana Waight is a writer, independent curator and publisher of OF THE zine. She lives and works in New York City.

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